The Early Years of Computing in Italy

Here are in theory‘s first ever book reviews! The books are

Giorgio Garuzzo
Quando in Italia si facevano i computer
Available for free at Amazon.com and Amazon.it.

Giorgio Ausiello
The Making of a New Science
Available from Springer, as a DRM-free PDF through your academic library.

Both books talk about the early years of computing in Italy, on the industrial and academic side, respectively. They briefly intersect with the story of Olivetti’s Elea computer.

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And now for something completely different

After 22 years in the United States, 19 of which spent in the San Francisco Bay Area, this Summer I will move to Milan to take a job at Bocconi University.

Like a certain well-known Bay Area institution, Bocconi is a private university that was endowed by a rich merchant in memory of his dead son. Initially characterized by an exclusive focus on law, economics and business, it has had for a while a high domestic recognition for the quality of teaching and, more recently, a good international profile both in teaching and research. Despite its small size, compared to Italy’s giant public universities, in 2017 Bocconi was the Italian university which had received the most ERC grants during the first ten years of existence of the European Research Council (in second place was my Alma Mater, the Sapienza University of Rome, which has about nine times more professors) (source).

About three years ago, Bocconi started planning for a move in the space of computing, in the context of their existing efforts in data science. As a first step, they recruited Riccardo Zecchina. You may remember Riccardo from his work providing a non-rigorous calculation of the threshold of random 3-SAT, his work on the “survey propagation” algorithm for SAT and other constraint satisfaction problems, as well as other work that brought statistical physics techniques to computer science. Currently, Riccardo and his group are doing very exciting work on the theory of deep learning.

Though I knew of his work, I had never met Riccardo until I attended a 2017 workshop at the Santa Fe Institute on “Thermodynamics and computation,” an invitation that I had accepted on whim, mostly based on the fact that I had never been to New Mexico and I had really liked Breaking Bad. Riccardo had just moved to Bocconi, he told me about their future plans, and he asked me if I was interested. I initially politely declined, but one thing led to another, and now here I am putting up my San Francisco house for sale.

Last August, as I was considering this move, I applied for an ERC grant from the European Union, and I just learned that the grant has been approved. This grant is approximately the same amount as the total of all the grants that I have received from the NSF over the past twenty years, and it will support several postdoc positions, as well as visitors ranging from people coming for a week to give a talk and meet with my group to a full-year sabbatical visit.

Although it’s a bit late for that, I am looking for postdocs starting as early as this September: if you are interested please contact me. The postdoc positions will pay a highly competitive salary, which will be free of Italian income tax (although American citizens will owe federal income tax to the IRS correction: American citizens would not owe anything to IRS either). As a person from Rome, I am not allowed to say good things about Milan or else I will have to return my Roman card (it’s kind of a NY versus LA thing), but I think that the allure of the city speaks for itself.

Likewise, if you are a senior researcher, and you have always wanted to visit me and work together on spectral methods, approximation algorithms, graph theory or graph algorithms, but you felt that Berkeley had insufficiently many Leonardo mural paintings and opera houses, and that it was too far from the Alps, then now you are in luck!

Against a 61% Tax Increase on Berkeley Students

Currently, when graduate students work as teaching assistants, the university waives their tuition and pays them a stipend. Under current tax law, students pay income tax “only” on their stipend. A provision in the tax bill currently under consideration would count the waived tuition as income, on which the student would have to pay taxes as well.

A calculation by a Berkeley physics graduate student (source) finds that a student who work as TA for both semesters and the summer, is payed at “step 1” of the UC Berkeley salary scale, and is a California resident, currently pays ​$2,229 in federal income tax, which would become ​$3,641​ under the proposed tax plan, a 61% increase. The situation for EECS students is a bit different: they are paid at a higher scale, which puts them in a higher bracket, and they are often on a F1 visa, which means that they pay the much-higher non-resident tuition, so they would be a lot worse off (on the other hand, they usually TA at most one semester per year). The same calculation for MIT students shows a 240% tax increase. A different calculation (sorry, no link available) shows a 144% increase for a Berkeley EECS student on a F! visa.

This is one of the tax increases that go to fund the abolition of the estate tax for estates worth more than $10.9 million, a reduction in corporate tax rates, a reduction in high-income tax rates, and other benefits for multi-millionaires.

There is also a vox explainer, and articles in inside higher ed and the chronicle of higher education with more information.

If you are a US Citizen, and if you think that graduate students should not pay for the estate tax of eight-figure estates, you should let you representative know. Usually calling, and asking to speak with the staffer responsible for tax policy, is much better than emailing or sending a physical mail. You can find the phone numbers of your representatives here.

If you have any pull in ACM, this is the kind of matter on which they might want to make a factual statement about the consequences for US computer science education, as they did at the time of the travel ban.

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: habemus directors

goldwasser_86278892
(Photo credit: ACM)

Formally ending a search started in March 2016 (and a process started in the Fall of 2015), we are pleased to finally officially announce that Shafi Goldwasser will take over from Dick Karp as director of the Simons Institute for Computing on January 1st, and will return to Berkeley after a 30+ year hiatus.

Shafi is the co-inventor and developer of the notions semantic security in encryption; of zero-knowledge proofs; of pseudorandom functions; of the connection between PCP and hardness of approximation; and of property testing in sublinear algorithms, among others. She has received the Turing award for her work on cryptography and of two Gödel prizes for her work on complexity.

I cannot put in words how happy I am for the Berkeley community, including myself, and for the future of the Institute.

The director search was my first glimpse into how the Berkeley central campus bureaucracy operates, and it was horrifying. The simplest thing couldn’t be done without a sequence of authorities signing off on it, and each authority had a process for that, which involved asking for other things that other authorities had to sign off on, and so on in what at times seemed actual infinite descent.

The announcement linked above was in the works for at least three weeks!

Alistair Sinclair, after two terms as associate director of the Simons Institute, during which his heroic efforts were recognized with the SIGACT service award, also retired from his position at the Institute, and last July 1st was replaced by Berkeley professor Peter Bartlett, a noted pioneer of the study of neural networks.

This weekend, on Saturday, the Simons Institute will host the FOCS reception, which will double as celebration for Alistair’s prize. There will buses leaving the conference hotel at 6:45pm, and there will be plenty of food (and drinks!) at the Institute. There will also be buses taking people back to the hotel, although once you are in downtown Berkeley on a Saturday evening (bring a sweater) you may want to hang out a bit more and then take a rideshare service back to the hotel.

How was FOCS 2015?

Back around 2010, the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at Berkeley offered to organize FOCS in 2013, 2015 and 2017. So far, the IEEE technical committee on mathematical foundations of computing has taken us up on this offer in 2013 and 2015, and, unless a competing bid is presented, FOCS will come again to Berkeley in 2017.

Unfortunately there is no hotel in downtown Berkeley that is able to accommodate FOCS. The Shattuck hotel almost but not quite is. (There are two conference rooms, but they are of very different size, and the space to hang out for coffee breaks is much too small for 200+ people, and it’s outdoors, which is potentially bad because rain in October is unlikely but not impossible in Berkeley.)

This leaves us with the Doubletree hotel in the Berkeley Marina, which has some advantages, such as views of the bay and good facilities, and some disadvantages, such as the isolated location and the high prices. The location also forces us to provide lunches, because it would be inconvenient for people to drive to lunch places and then drive back during the lunch break. Being well aware of this, the hotel charges extortionate fees for food.

This is to say that, planning for FOCS 2017, there is nothing much different that we can do, although there are lots of little details that we can adjust, and it would be great to know how people’s experience was.

For example, did the block of discounted hotel rooms run out too soon? Would you have liked to have received something else with your registration than just the badge? If so, what? (So far, I have heard suggestions for FOCS-branded hats, t-shirts, and teddy bears.) Wasn’t it awesome to have a full bar at the business meeting? Why did nobody try the soups at lunch? The soups were delicious!

FOCS 2015

This is an odd-numbered year, and FOCS is back in Berkeley. The conference, whose early registration deadline is coming up, will be held on October 18-20 at the Double Tree hotel near the Berkeley marina, the same location of FOCS 2013, and it will be preceded by a day-long conference in honor of Dick Karp’s 80th birthday.

Early registration closes next Friday, so make sure that you register before then.

The weekend before FOCS there will be the Treasure Island Music Festival; Treasure Island is halfway along the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco, and from the Island there are beautiful views of the Bay Area.

After FOCS, there is a South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco.

If you arrive on Friday the 16th and you want to spend an afternoon in San Francisco, at the end of the day you can find your way to the De Young Museum in Golden Gate park, which stays open until 8:30pm on Fridays, and it has live music and a bar in the lobby from 5:30 to 8:30.

Did I mention that the early registration deadline is coming up? Don’t forget to register.

On Berkeley and Recycling

For the past few days, I have been getting emails that are the Platonic ideal of the U.C. Berkeley administration.

Today, there was a one-hour presentation on recycling and composting at Soda Hall, the computer science building. This is worth saying once more: a one hour presentation on putting glass, metal, and certain plastics in one container, clean paper in another, and compostable material in a third one. We received an email announcement, then an invitation to add the event to our calendar, then two remainders.

But what if one cannot make it? Not to worry! There will be a second one hour presentation on recycling, for those who missed the first one, and for those that were so enthralled by the first one that they want to spend one more hour being told about recycling.

Meanwhile, I have been trying since February to get a desk, a conference table and a bookshelf for my office in Soda Hall. So far I got the desk.

I asked Christos what he thought about the two one-hour presentations on recycling, and he said it reminded him of a passage from a famous essay by Michael Chabon:

Passersby feel empowered-indeed, they feel duty-bound-to criticize your parking technique, your failure to sort your recycling into brown paper and white, your resource-hogging four-wheel-drive vehicle, your use of a pinch-collar to keep your dog from straining at the leash.

Sometimes I think that when the administration started hearing about MOOCs, they must have started to dream about a future with no professors, because the students all take MOOCs, and no students on campus, because they all take the MOOCs from their home, and the campus would just be filled by Assistant Chancellors of this and that, giving each other training workshops. And this would be like the episode of Get Smart in which Max infiltrates a criminal gang until he finds out that everybody is an infiltrator and there is no criminal left.

It’s the University of California COMMA Berkeley

As of today, I am again an employee of the University of California, this time as senior scientist at the Simons Institute, as well as professor of EECS.

As anybody who has spent time there can confirm, the administrative staff of the Simons Institute is exceptionally good and proactive. Not only they take care of the things you ask them, but they take care of the things that you did not know you should have asked them. In fact at Berkeley the quality of the administration tracks pretty well the level at which it is taking place. At the level of departments and of smaller units, everything usually works pretty well, and then things get worse as you go up.

Which brings me to the office of the Chancellor, which runs U.C. Berkeley, and from which I received my official job offer. As you can see, that office cannot even get right, on its own letterhead, the name of the university that it runs:

Also, my address was spelled wrong, and the letter offered me the wrong position. I can’t believe they managed to put on the correct postage stamp. I was then instructed by the EECS department chair to respond by saying “I accept your offer of [correct terms],” which sounded passive-aggressive, but that’s what I did.

This week in history

IMG_2614

The great earthquake of 1906 struck San Francisco on April 18, around 5 in the morning. While the earthquake already caused a lot of damage, it was the subsequent fire that ravaged the city: the earthquake had broken the water pipes, and so it was impossible to fight the fire because the hydrants were not working. Except for the hydrant at Church and 20th, which saved my house and a good part of the mission. The hydrant is painted golden, and once a year, on the anniversary of the earthquake, the fire department repaints it and leaves a token of appreciation. (They actually do it at 5 in the morning.)

By the way, there are two faults that can cause earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay Area. One is (our stretch of) the San Andreas fault, which runs close to the ocean, and which caused the 1906 quake and the 1989 one, and which may not be an imminent risk given the energy released in 1989. The other is the Hayward fault, which runs near Berkeley. The Hayward fault had big earthquakes in 1315, 1470, 1630, 1725, and 1868, that is about every 100-140 years, with the last one being 146 years ago…

tiananmen

25 years ago on April 15, Hu Yaobang died. The day before his funeral, about 100,000 people marched to Tiananmen square, an event that led to the occupation of the square, and which culminated in what in mainland China used to be referred to as the “June 4 events,” and now as the “I don’t know what you are talking about” events.

Also, something happened, according to tradition, 1981 years ago.